The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

By , April 28, 2010

After reading some very positive reviews, I was quite disappointed with this book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch). While there are many good ideas in the book, it’s excruciatingly repetitive, poorly organized, and fails to persuade.

I bought this book after reading Dave Ellison’s column in the Daily Review on Monday.  Ellison’s column about the book and its author led me to post a blog entry.  Ellison wrote (in part) that Ravitch’s “wrenching transformation” from supporter to opponent (of high-stakes-testing and school choice) was based on data, and certainly Ravitch does offer up some helpful data to support her conclusion that various “school reform” strategies have failed to produce improvements in education.  But there’s really nothing new here, and I don’t expect this book to “convert” anyone who previously disagreed with Ravitch’s views (which are clearly very similar to Dave Ellison’s views and my own views).

In fact, I didn’t really perceive a “wrenching transformation” by the author; perhaps the transformation was so complete that she wasn’t able to clearly articulate her earlier views.  While reading the book, I felt that Ms. Ravitch’s earlier support of particular school reforms was not very strong, and she mostly “went along” with the views of others on the topics of high-stakes testing, school choice, and business-like management of schools.  Her real passion seems to be curriculum and instruction, and her “transformation” seems mostly to be a realization that popular reform movements (specifically, evaluating teachers primarily based on student test scores) had ruined or eliminated the curriculum that matters so much to her.

Throughout the book, Ravitch repeats and recycles many of the same facts, analysis, and conclusions, over and over, again and again. Of course, it makes sense to “remind” or “refresh” readers when making a new connection to earlier material in a text, but that’s not the problem. Instead, each chapter appears to be written to stand alone.  (At times, I even wondered if the book was simply a collection of columns or essays that she’d written over the past year or two, but I can’t find any support for this theory.)  Perhaps Ravitch recognizes that many readers won’t have time to read the entire book, and thus she wants each chapter to be meaningful and “complete,” even if read in isolation from the rest of the book.  (In fact, a number of logical and rhetorical contradictions are apparent when reading the entire book.)

I must stress: I agree with nearly all the ideas and arguments in Ravitch’s book.  And she makes many very strong arguments (but unfortunately, without much persuasive evidence or data).  My frustration comes not just from the painful amount of repetition, but from frustration that Ravitch’s arguments simply don’t seem likely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already share her views.

In the end, I simply found myself wishing for a much shorter, better-organized summary of the ideas discussed in this book.

Disclaimer: The book links to are affiliate links (paid advertising).

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